For over 20 years, Theo Jansen has been busy perfecting a “new form of life”. Powered solely by the wind, Jansen’s creatures are made to walk over the beach of the Dutch coast. With dozens of legs, these skeleton-like kinetic sculptures move in ways reminiscent of large insects. Unlike other robots what is striking about the ‘Strandbeests’ (beasts of the beach) is the way they walk in irregular spurts as if thinking, or hesitating, before deciding to go back or forth and keep going about their busy lives.
Born in 1948 in the Netherlands, Theo Jansen began a physics degree but went on to pursue life as an artist. He was a painter until the nineties when the idea of building a creature that would save the Dutch coast from the threat of rising sea levels came to mind. This is when he began working on the ‘Strandbeest’, – a self-propelled creature that would set out with the task of bringing sand from the water’s edge so as to preserve, ad aeternum, the seaside dunes that work as a protective barrier to the Low Countries.
Since then, many generations of beasts have followed each other. Given the right amount of time (“millions of years”) Theo believes he could make the ‘Strandbeests’ arrive at a very sophisticated level of evolution. He likes to imagine that one day these species will be able to live, survive and evolve by themselves in herds on the beaches of Holland.
Theo uses ‘poor’ materials such as electricity PVC tubes, lemonade bottles or sails to build ingenious mechanisms that bring his sculptures to life. The principles chosen to move and control these robots seem to be directly inspired by those of nature. Instead of wheels that we seldom see in nature ‘Strandbeests’ use a system similar to animals’ legs with joints and tendons and muscles. Mimicking other biological principles like lungs, wings or nerves, Theo’s creations, although aesthetically far from any recognizable animal, awaken our sense of empathy.
“Over time, these skeletons have become increasingly better at surviving the elements such as storms and water, and eventually I want to put these animals out in herds on the beaches, so they will live their own lives.” – Theo Jansen
Each generation has a name and a series of characteristics related to their stage of evolution and with the artist’s efforts to improve the mechanisms and systems that will assist these creatures’ survival instincts. The periods where these generations evolve have names too: it all started with the Gluton Period (1990-91), which saw the birth of Animaris Vulgaris made out of tubes and tape. However this first creature could only move its legs while lying on its back. It was only with the Chorda Epoch that Animaris Currens Vulgaris developed the ability to stand and walk.
“Now the animals have a way of storing the wind. There are wings which go up and down in the wind, and there are pumps connected to those wings which pump air into bottles at high pressure. The pressed air can drive muscles – ski poles that lift the animal and help push it over the soft sand.” -Theo Jansen
Nowadays, ‘Strandbeests’ are not only capable of walking but also, reversing direction when encountering water or an obstacle; storing pressurized air which they can use when the wind is not strong enough to get back to the dunes; or even anchoring themselves to the sand when sensing a storm approaching.
In the middle of each Strandbeest is a rotating crankshaft. This rotation is converted by eleven rods into a walking movement. The smoothness and success of the movement is dependent on the ratio between the lengths of the eleven rods. To calculate the ideal ratios between the rods’ lengths Theo Jansen developed a computer model that would generate 1500 legs with rods of random length to assess which of these would result with the ideal walking. The best 100 lengths the computer assessed were “awarded the privilege of reproduction”. After many generations of leg combinations and associations and new computer calculations the result was eleven numbers denoting the ideal lengths of the required rods. This is how Animaris Currens Vulgaris legs were created and how the first beach animal was able to walk. Here are the numbers responsible for the way Theo Jansen’s creatures walk their walk: a = 38, b =41.5, c=39.3, d=40.1, e=55.8, f=39.4, g=36.7, h=65.7, i=49, j=50, k= 61.9, l=7.8, m=15.
“Mine is not a straight path like an engineer’s, it’s not A to B. I make a very curly road just by the restrictions of goals and materials. A real engineer would probably solve the problem differently, maybe make an aluminum robot with motor and electric sensors and all that. But the solutions of engineers are often much alike, because human brains are much alike. Everything we think can in principle be thought by someone else. The real ideas, as evolution shows, come about by chance. Reality is very creative. Maybe that is why the Strandbeests appear to be alive, and charm us.”- Theo Jansen for The New Yorker
Each Autumn, Theo Jansen starts working on a new beast; when the development of the previous animal is at its end it’s declared extinct and pushed onto the boneyard. In the boneyard the species seem to fossilize exposed to the sun and rain. The artist calls these the fossils of his extinct species, which are often exhibited in galleries and museums alike.
Before letting the new beasts out onto the beach they first train their steps on a sandpit. By May/June, the new beast will finally be ready to enter its habitat where the public can watch as it begins its life strolling along the coast.
Writer: Filipa Rosa is the Creative Director of Revolve Media.
This article appeared in Issue #16 (Summer 2015) of Revolve Magazine on pages 76-81